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Miracles, magic and the power of prophecy are common themes in Waterhouse's art. More specifically, the notion of woman as enchantress is one that recurs in images such as 'Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysees' (1891, Oldham Art Gallery) and 'Hylas and the Nymphs' (1896, Manchester City Art Gallery). His oeuvre also includes a number of middle-eastern subjects, in which he drew on the work of contemporary artists such as J. F Lewis and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, rather than on actual experience.
The meaning of the picture is unclear, but its mystery and exoticism struck a chord with contemporary observers. When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 the critic for the Magazine of Art wrote 'Mr Waterhouse, in ''The Magic Circle'', is still at his best – original in conception and pictorial in his results' (quoted in Hobson, p.37).
Further reading: Anthony Hobson, 'J. W. Waterhouse', Oxford 1989, pp.37–38, reproduced p.36. Christopher Wood, 'Victorian Painting', London 1999, pp.236–242. Frances Fowle December 2000
Oil on canvas
H 182.9 x W 127 cm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1886